I’m finally feeling festive so bring on the fruitcake!

It is almost hard to believe, but poor Beth is once again in the dark! We had a brief yet powerful electrical storm yesterday and I assume lightening took its toll! So she’s been sidelined from posting, and I presume waylaid from other practical duties. I hope she’ll be at her best again soon.

I, on the other hand, have indeed made progress! We have a tree, and although it’s sitting here bare, it’s closer to fulfilling its Christmas destiny! We even bought a little tiny tree for our granddaughters to decorate fully and completely on their own.  I’m feeling festive! And thanks to the miracle of on-line shopping the house is strewn with packing boxes and by the time the weekend is over there’s a reasonable chance I’ll have most of it wrapped. My husband even insists that despite the forecast of rain we’ll have outdoor lights by Monday. It’s looking good for the home team!

I’m a little disappointed, though, that time is working against my enthusiasm and I believe it’s too late to channel my inner Martha Stewart.  I had such visions of sugar cookies all decked out in royal icing, silver metallic drageés and other beautiful decorative nonpareil delights! I even bought the ingredients, but I’ll report back around Valentine’s Day and see if I do any better then!

I guess I’m glad I’m the only one disappointed that I didn’t get to the fruitcake. This is not  a popular treat in my family, but I love it. I was going to make two versions–the traditional cake, dense and decadent (if you like it you use words like that) and I also planned to try my hand at a traditional Scottish Christmas cake known as the Whisky Dundee.  This light crumbly cake rich with currants, raisins, cherries and Scotch whisky seemed like a good idea about a month ago.

A delicious wedge of Dundee Cake

I don’t really understand all the jokes about fruitcake, but an article in the Christian Science Monitor (Huang) notes that 47% of people who said they received a fruitcake as a gift threw it away.  Regifting is high, too, with 11% giving away any fruitcake they receive. The good news for me, however, is that since it seems fruitcake remains edible for 26 years if stored in an airtight tin I could easily get an early start on next Christmas and bake the goods in January!

I have made peace with the idea that this isn’t the time to overreach. Still one family tradition will remain. I will find time to include a baking day (or at least a few hours) to make my great-grandmother Nana’s shortbread recipe. Every family has a holiday recipe or food tradition that lovingly connects the past with present, and in ours it’s Nana’s shortbread. Her little handwritten recipe card traveled with her from her home in Scotland and is lovingly preserved.

The recipe itself isn’t particularly unique.  I’ve compared the ingredients to other shortbread recipes and they are all just about the same. But the difference is in the handling. My grandmother very patiently instructed me how to make the cakes the way she’d been taught by her mother.  We never use a mixer, instead combining the flours, sugar and butter (lots of it!) by hand.  It’s a strange contextual experience, but I learned at a young age how to work with the butter following my grandmother’s motions and working quickly to avoid over-handling and liquefying the butter.

Sophia and Karina aren’t ready for this baking project just yet, but it won’t be long before their mother and I will pass along this same Christmas baking tradition that came to me through my great-grandmother and then my grandma. Maybe this year they could sprinkle the sugar on top!

Is there a holiday baking tradition you hold sacrosanct? And by all means, do let me know how you feel about fruitcake!


Tell me how you feel about fruitcake!

Fruitcakes That Are Destined for the Table, Not the Trash – NYTimes.com.

26 thoughts on “I’m finally feeling festive so bring on the fruitcake!

  1. You don’t want to know how I feel about fruitcake, Debra. My mother made it. Her mother made it. I tried it every now and then and never liked it because no matter how old I got it still tasted like fruitcake. My grandmother made the kind without liquor and coated hers in the hard sugar crust that you had to knock off with a hammer. My Mom soaked hers in rum. It didn’t make any difference: I concluded that the fruitcake gene skipped my generation.

    On the positive side, we bake at least half a dozen kinds of cookies each year only at Christmas, plus poppy seed bread. I have added cocoa shortbread to the assortment (always mixed by hand — I didn’t know anyone made shortbread with a mixer). Our usual list is butter cookies, Moravian ginger thins, Russian tea cakes, dream bars, cocoa shortbread and pfefferneusse. We used to make candy, too, but that is dangerous with only two of us in the household.

    1. Sharyn, I think next year I might collect fruitcake stories and memories from my friends. I am sure I would find it an amusing exercise! I am also sure I didn’t even taste fruitcake as a child, so the more adult taste didn’t give me an early negative impression. That may have helped! Your cookie assortment is enviable, and I’m sincere in saying that. I have such good intentions…I must get started earlier next year (but I’ve been saying that for years now). My informal poll hasn’t revealed friends baking shortbread “by hand” but then again, I don’t have a lot of baking friends these days! That’s one reason why I so enjoy reading your posts. You inspire me to widen my search a bit 🙂 Debra

  2. I can feel the Christmas spirit building across the miles, Debra. Your house sounds like mine today, right up to the delivery boxes. To me, there is nothing that brings Christmas home than the aroma of cookies baking. Your shortbread recipe sounds so special and your little girls will soon be helping you with making them. I have a friend’s shortbread recipe, that has proved the test of time, but, if I make it when my friends Nancy and Dave are around, I make sure to keep it the oven a bit longer. Her mother-in-law always baked it “well fired”, which means browned deep on top. Not my favorite, but, it always gives them pleasure, so I do. Besides, I like the term “well fired”. It brings to mind an old cookstove. Ah, now I’ve rambled on and could have just about written a blog myself.

    Here’s to keeping the power on – and the spirit bright.

    1. Thank you, Penny, and I hope you have a wonderfully productive, but not stressful day! I was amused by the “well fired” and wondering how to interpret that! Through the years we’ve had fun figuring out what a “slow” oven should mean, and I think each one of us bakes it to a slightly different hue! I chuckled at your thought you could have written a blog on this…if there is posting momentum this week we’ll all be fortunate! Whew! Debra

        1. Thank you, Sharyn. The original recipe was calibrated for a wood-fired stove, so we’ve had to play with the recipe as our ovens seem to get more and more efficient. This year I’m going to try something different…you can tell me if you think it might make a difference. I remember my grandmother only making one batch at a time, and at the most two (I’m not even sure about that!) and I think I decide to bake too many batches all on one day…the oven would get even a bit hotter over time, wouldn’t it? It’s entirely possible I have no idea what I’m talking about. It’s a sincere question! Debra

          1. Debra, whether your oven gains or loses heat depends on how well it is calibrated: we have one oven that runs hot and one that runs slightly cool. Finicky people who want perfect cookies only bake one tray of cookies at a time on the middle rack of the oven because you get the most even air circulation that way. Mom and I don’t do this because we believe it is a waste of resources to have an oven on and not utilize it fully, so we bake on the first and third rack unless we are baking something like angel food cake which requires more head room. No oven should get hotter and hotter over time. Do you switch the baking sheet from rack to rack and from front to back? This, too, promotes even baking. Hope some of this helps.

  3. I was doing fine this Christmas with all of my shopping done early — all but one gift. Here is is, about a week away and I still cannot come up with an appropriate gift. As for fruitcake, I can appreciate it as a gift, as I would any baked good, but it’s not something I would ever make for myself or, for that matter, purchase.

    1. Well you’re doing great then, John, to be down to one gift, but I know the feeling of just not being sure what that gift should be! It’s easy to over-think on special gifts for certain people! I think you would be appreciative of the time that would go into a fruitcake, but maybe in the end you’d be one of the re-gifters? 🙂 Good luck with your final gift purchase!! Debra

  4. cristin

    I have been waiting to hear about the shortbread! I remember the year Aimee gave it as gifts. It is delicious and I love the tradition and sentiment. Merry Christmas friend!

    1. And to you and your precious family, Cristin. Aimee told me this morning I may be seeing you this week! I hope so…and it’s entirely possible that you’ll be coming by right in the middle of some shortbread baking. I’ll put you to work for a nibble in return! 🙂 Debra

  5. Ginny Rood

    I didn’t like fruitcake when my mom and aunt made it (and I never even tried it), but now I really like it. I made Martha Stewart’s fruitcake once and it was worth the time and expense. My specialty is fudge; I made my second batch of the season this morning. Sometime this weekend I plan to make peppercocker cookies using my Swedish grandmother’s recipe. I would love to try your shortbread.

    1. Fudge! Oh my, Ginny, do you give it all away quickly or can you pace yourself! Yum! I have never heard of peppercrocker cookies. How fascinating! I love that it’s your grandmother’s recipe. Our little network of childhood friends ought to share and swap some of our family recipes some time. I’m on it for next year! Since fruitcake has an extreme shelf-life (maybe half-life) come stay with me again this next summer and let’s make Martha’s recipe together. We can run the air conditioning full-tilt and do our Christmas baking. Fun! D

  6. Aimee

    So glad I didn’t inherit your love for fruitcake. Although I don’t know if it’s really all that good since it is probably the only sweet I don’t care for. The Fetterly genes win in me. As for Nana’s shortbread, I am already feeling the pressure as so many people have asked if I’m making it this year. I’m going to use you as a trial run on Tuesday to see how it goes making it with 2 hovering little girls. Maybe I can crank out a couple batches this year 🙂

  7. All of the chatter about baking and long forgotten terms like “well fired” and “slow oven” has stirred the baker in me, Ms. Debra. First on the fruitcake topic; it was my dad’s favorite. He preferred a cake tan in color and loaded with all sorts of fruity bits. Most often the cakes we received as gifts were darker in color with less fruit and akin to a brick in weight. No matter, my father felt the winner as he was the “taster” and enjoyed them all. There was often the “cake baking” day (versus the cookie baking day) with ingredients neatly portioned in small cups. After the baking, my task was to dip cheesecloth in apricot brandy and wrap the loaves. I remember licking my fingers and thinking, “mmm, this is tasty” — not my thought of the finished cake product, even though I did try to develop a liking. HA!

    The cookies passed along in my family were those made with an aluminum Mirro Cookie Press. I am in possession of my grandmother’s press including all the gizmos and recipes; my sister has our mother’s press and has reigned as the clan’s Cookie Queen for sometime. (She even makes rum balls!) Over the years, our favorites were Christmas Trees and Holly Wreaths. Just this past week, my bonus son, Kevin, now living in No. Cal., asked me to send him the recipes saying, “Christmas just is not the same without those cookies, Amie.” Ahhh, how sweet! So the small box to be mailed next week contains a store-bought cookie press (more like a “shooter”) with the original recipes and the love and blessings that a tradition brought to a step-child has found a legacy for the another generation.

    Happy baking, all, I can smell all of the cakes and cookies now! Ellen

    1. How delightful, Ellen. Your memories of baking are delightful. I can just picture you dipping the cheesecloth and attending to your duty! I am so glad you shared. How fun to look back at both cookie baking day and then cake baking! Your mom had some lovely patterns to her holiday preparedness! And won’t Kevin be delighted with his gift. I can just imagine this little family enjoying the rewards of such pretty cookies!

  8. I guess I am one of the few people who like fruitcake. My husband does as well. I can see not liking one of the $3.00 fruitcakes you see in some of the grocery stores. But a homemade fruitcake is so different. I use pecans in mine, along with apricots, and candied citrus. It gets soaked in brandy or rum twice a week.

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Karen, and sharing your fruitcake particulars! I agree with you that inexpensive store-bought would fall short. The truth is that I don’t think I have ever tasted homemade! I’ve had some very good substitutes, but I have never made it, and no one else in my little corner likes it! I’m completely committed to trying my hand soon. There’s no reason to say it can only be Christmas. Your particular ingredients sound wonderful and fall closely in line with my personal tastes. I’m so glad you shared! Debra

  9. How topical, Debra: Maddie and I made our first one ever today! Lovely to smell it cooking for three hours….a magical ritual. It would probably be cheaper to buy one but there are some things which are more than the sum of their parts.

    1. Isn’t that something! From what some of my friends have been sharing about their Christmas memories I think the best thing about your effort today would be sharing the baking ritual with Maddie. How lovely! and I agree with you, it is an expensive project, but it will be so well worth it! Wish I could have a little taste 🙂 Debra

  10. Debra, I am appalled to say that I think fruitcake makes a good door stop. I wish I liked it. I love to smell it baking, but the taste of it isn’t for me.

    I’d much rather eat………shortbread!! Loads and loads of shortbread. Your baking day will be busy if you’re making it from scratch, but your hands will be soft and smooth, won’t they? 🙂 My friend Alice always makes shortbread every year, and I have begged her for the recipe. It is amazing stuff. The perfect gift.

    1. You know, it doesn’t have to be for everyone! It’s just so funny to me that people have very strong feelings about fruitcake! And I do think shortbread is addicting and a little dangerous! I can’t stop eating it once I start! 🙂 Debra

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